With the win Saturday night, the Tampa Bay Lightning will move on to the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight season. As they look to become the first team to three-peat since the early 80s New York Islanders, they’ve already cemented themselves as one of the most dominant teams of the 21st century.
Fans are quick to credit the Lightning’s success to superstars like Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, and Andrei Vasilevskiy. While Kucherov leads the franchise in playoff goals, Hedman has established himself as one of the greatest defensemen of all time during this run, and Vasilevskiy has played himself into the title of the league’s best goaltender, there’s no doubt they deserve the heralded praise. However, another stands out above the others. Steven Stamkos, a sought-after All-Star, isn’t the first name people mention when talking about the success of the Lightning over the last couple of playoff runs.
Whether it be the injuries that kept him out of all but one game of the 2020 Playoffs or the dominant performances of the others, it feels odd that he’s just now recognized for his playoff contributions (from ‘Lightning’s Steven Stamkos has a new injury entering training camp’, Tampa Bay Times, 7/11/2020). He’s still considered one of the league’s greatest goal scorers, yet only recently have many seen him as a playoff great. His performance specifically in this year’s Playoffs have put him in a conversation among the league’s best forwards of all-time.
Stamkos and his Early Critics
With 481 goals in 922 NHL games, Stamkos is third in goals among active players, behind Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. He’ll likely become the 47th member of the prestigious 500-goal club as soon as next year. He’s hit the 40-goal mark six times in his career, the 50-goal mark twice, and the legendary 60-goal season once in 2011-12.
Stamkos rose to fame after a pedestrian rookie season, where Head Coach Barry Melrose was outspoken in the media about him not being ready for the NHL. Melrose went as far as to say, “Steven is gonna be a good player. Right now, he’s just not strong enough physically to play against defensemen that are six-[foot]-three, six-four that can skate as good as him” (from ‘Melrose lashes back at Lightning’, CBS Sports, 12/9/2008). He was also benched multiple times that season by Melrose’s replacement, Rick Tocchet, for not being physical enough.
For several years following Melrose’s firing, Stamkos struggled to prove him wrong. While toughness and work ethic have never been in question, his career has been plagued with injuries. While lack of size and strength may have started the injury issues early on, a lot of it is just bad luck. He’s trained with one of the league’s top trainers in Gary Robert for a large portion of his career. Through that training, Stamkos has belittled those worried about his strength. Regardless, Stamkos spent a lot of his middle seasons dealing with injuries that included a broken tibia, a torn meniscus, and core surgery. We know Stamkos did become a great player, but Melrose was wrong in saying that he was not ready for the NHL.
Stamkos and Lightning’s Early Playoff Struggles
His ability to have come back from multiple major injuries and still play at over a point-per-game level is a testament to his toughness. A toughness that has helped him become an amazing leader in the Lightning locker room. He’s one of the resilient players in the league, playing through serious injuries, and always willing to take a hit for his team.
For years, the Lightning were seen as a great regular-season team that couldn’t get over the hump and win a Stanley Cup. Losing the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, and the Conference Final in 2016 and 2018, many questioned whether the Lightning core, led by Stamkos, could bring the Cup home.
Stamkos the Playoff Performer
Stamkos still had to answer for the fact that his team won the 2020 Stanley Cup without him. Not only has been a star in the 2021 and the 2022 Playoffs, but he had his best regular season in 2021-22 with 106 points. With 33-points in 40 games over these last two playoffs, he’s been the Lightning’s leader and heartbeat. He mitigates the defensive mistakes his offensive-minded linemate Nikita Kucherov makes in his own zone while providing top-line level offensive numbers.
Stamkos’ nine goals lead the team in these playoffs. With Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final deadlocked at 0-0, Stamkos beat New York Rangers’ Igor Shesterkin on a wrist shot from the top of the circle to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead. He then scored the other Lightning goal, knocking in his own rebound, for the eventual game-winning goal.
In the Second Round versus the Florida Panthers, Stamkos blasted his vintage one-timer past Sergei Bobrovsky to give the Lightning a 3-1 lead in Game 3. He’s been able to score at an impressive rate despite the lack of offense the Lightning have had at times throughout these playoffs. The offensive production comes on top of the leadership he provides a team that is on its way to its third straight Stanley Cup Final.
Where Does Stamkos Rank All-Time?
While a few years younger than Crosby and Ovechkin, many would consider him of the same generation. More comparable to his age are names like Patrick Kane, John Tavares, Claude Giroux, and Brad Marchand. Compared with the best in his age group, Stamkos has one of the most rounded resumes. With more goals in less games than Kane, and two more Stanley Cups than Tavares and Giroux, he has the unique combination of individual and team success. The goals and the Stanley Cups give him a leg up on most of the players of his generation.
After Crosby was drafted in 2005, Stamkos arguably has the most impressive compilation of forward stats, outside of Kane. Even with all the time missed for injuries, Stamkos has been the best goal-scorer of anyone drafted after Ovechkin. While there is a young phenom who plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs named Auston Matthews who could change that when it’s all said and done, right now Stamkos has the numbers to date. At 32 years old, Stamkos has a legit chance in the back half of his career to climb up the ranks for goals all-time, hopefully becoming the 21st player to score 600 goals.
As for 2022, he can further cement his legacy as one of the greatest players of his generation with a third Stanley Cup win. He would join Crosby, and Kane as offensive superstars of his generation winning three Stanley Cups. Look for Stamkos to play a large role in this year’s Stanley Cup Final. The larger the role he plays in the series, the higher chance the Lightning will get that sought-after three-peat. If they can do that, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is handing the Cup to Stamkos in a couple of weeks, he’ll go down as not just one of the greatest goal-scorers, but one of the greatest overall players of all time.
Law student, who loves all thing sports. Connor is a former college athlete who understands sports from a players perspective. Based out of Detroit, fell in love with hockey by going to the old Joe Louis Arena watching those legendary 2000s Red Wing teams. Connor will talk to anyone who will listen on player performance, draft prospects, and front office management around the NHL. In his free time he loves to golf, although his scorecard may tell you otherwise. Covering all things Tampa Bay Lightning.